Social Impact Through STEM

Startup Pi515 boosts youth entrepreneurs

Fashion designer Belange Mutunda, who inked a collaboration with global retailer SHEIN as a young entrepreneur, needed extra support to achieve her dreams. She credits her early career accomplishments to her mentor’s guidance.

Belange came to central Iowa from the Democratic Republic of Congo at 17. Like many ambitious immigrant teens here, an introduction to Nancy Mwirotsi changed the Des Moines Area Community College student’s life.

Nancy founded the nonprofit Pursuit of Innovation, also known as Pi515, in 2014 to encourage a diverse group of youth to pursue careers in STEM. Its free programming and mentoring create accessible opportunities to learn marketable skills they can flex at global corporations or in their own businesses. The organization’s social impact approach creates connectivity between afterschool education and Des Moines’ startup ecosystem.

“Nancy’s the one who taught me everything,” said Belange, who is now pursuing her PhD. “I didn’t know anything about creating a business plan. I didn’t know how to pitch my business, how to apply for grants. The foundation of business that I know now is through Nancy.”

Fostering Future-Proof Skills

Nancy’s passion for paving a path to prosperity through STEM fields began with her desire to tell the story of successful Africans. She started an online magazine, Riziki, to put a positive spin on the contributions of people from her home continent. A piece Nancy published about her childhood friend, global tech leader Juliana Rotich, re-awakened Nancy’s interest in coding.

“My favorite class was learning C++,” Nancy said. She moved from Kenya to Iowa in 1997 to attend college and study computer science. “But back then, there were very few women in tech. I felt like I was going to get stuck doing data entry. I dropped out.”

A Pi515 group listens to their instructor.

Coding was a skill she felt she could share with teens – especially those who wouldn’t have access to classes unless they were free. She started Pi515 at Zion Lutheran Church, which hosts services in Swahili and Mizo and is known for supporting immigrant and refugee populations. She wanted young women like Belange to know they could blend technical skills and creativity.

“Sometimes people don’t realize what girls need to be inspired,” Nancy said. “It’s important that we tell them that you have a safe space to build, where you can take a risk and work on your courage.”

Pi515 has grown thanks to Nancy’s passion for preparing youth to meet workforce challenges. The organization recently moved into space that was donated by Principal Financial Group®. Now, the students who participate in Pi515 programming badge-in at the company’s global headquarters in downtown Des Moines. The collaborative space features 3D printers and large screens for presentations. Notes on the dry-erase board celebrate college acceptances and list corporate sponsors for a 10th anniversary “Day of Innovation AI Challenge.”

Weaving a Network

Local startup leaders were “early adopters” to the cause, helping Nancy forge connections and contributing mentorship and funds. Nancy was named a Microsoft Techspark Fellow and is now serving alongside several local leaders on Des Moines’ MIT REAP Team, working to develop strategic planning that will influence economic transformation in central Iowa.

“I love this community so much because I’ll get a girl with a brilliant idea who I can only help so far,” Nancy said.

That’s where the rest of her entrepreneurial network can step in, especially for Pi515’s Girls’ Entrepreneurship Incubator participants. That initiative, which received IEDA funding, focuses on supporting aspiring young women entrepreneurs through mentorship, workshops, networking, market exposure and resources.

“Disruptive skills like adaptability are so important,” Nancy said. “When you’re teaching, especially in Python and/or entrepreneurship, you’re teaching critical thought.”

As Nancy reflects on the strides she’s made over the span of a decade, her most profound satisfaction comes from students she’s watched grow into professionals. She points to young people pursuing advanced degrees and getting hired at financial services companies like Athene as proof that Pi515 has helped its students reach heights they never imagined. Because many of the youth involved in Pi515 come from immigrant and refugee backgrounds, this makes a big difference in their family’s ability to thrive.

“We celebrate amazing kids with great success,” Nancy said. “My goal is to make sure that companies know we have talent.”

Published April 18, 2024

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